12/13/2008

Simons on the State of the Church in Pittsburgh

The Episcopal Church Diocese of Pittsburgh has just held its special convention to begin a new page in the life of the Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. 27 parishes gathered and began the task of reorganization following the exit of its former and now deposed bishop and about 60 percent of the clergy and people.

At that Diocesan Convention the Rev. Dr. James Simons gave the address /sermon. The Chair of the Standing Committee, he has been a central figure in the life of the diocese for years. Jim's sermon is worth repeating here in full. It is hopeful and faithful at a time when both are needed, joined together as they are in the lives of all Christians. Read it with joy and hope for Pittsburgh and for all of us in the Episcopal Church. The posting was given on the Diocese of Pittsburgh website, HERE. (Photo from their webpage as well.)

State Of The Diocese Report - The Rev. Dr. James B. Simons
Special Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh
The Rev. Dr. James B. SimonsDecember 13, 2008

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven"

These familiar words, from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, are often read at funerals and were turned into a popular song in the 1960’s. The preacher, Koheloth, begins to pair opposites such as in "a time to be born and time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh." Of the fourteen pairings, one has always troubled me, or, I should say, didn’t make a lot of sense to me and seemed to be out of place with the others. It occurs in the fifth verse: " A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones together".

As I reflect on the events of the past several years, and more specifically in the Diocese of Pittsburgh over the past several months, I now think I understand this verse, and in many ways it has become the most poignant of them all.

As we move forward as the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, we need to make a decision about which season we are in: the season where we cast stones or the season where we gather them. I would like to suggest that we end the season of stone throwing and enter into a new season — one in which stones are gathered, gathered so that we might rebuild what has been torn down.

Casting stones:
As we seek to rebuild the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, we are not starting with a clean slate. As we move forward we carry the burden and scars of our recent past history. In short, we have developed a culture over the past several years that has not been one of grace and charity. We bring with us patterns of behavior which sought to categorize and judge others by what were in many cases arbitrary measures. We have not thought the best of each other and we have assigned motives for others’ actions, often without speaking to that person or seeking to obtain accurate information. It was a culture of fear and control, and many in this room, including myself, cooperated in the creation of that culture. It was a culture of throwing stones, and I stand before you now to say, "Today that culture ends."

In the eighth chapter of The Gospel According to St. John, Jesus is confronted by a group of religious leaders who bring to him, as John describes it, "a woman who had been caught in adultery." It is quite possible that this woman had been dragged from her bed, disheveled and partially clothed and forcibly driven through the streets of Jerusalem to the temple itself where Jesus was teaching. A woman found to be in grievous sin dragged to the holiest site of her faith. She is to be an object lesson, and Jesus is asked if she should be stoned, as the law permits. You all know his response, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." And John tells us that one by one, starting with the eldest, the religious leaders turned and walked away. At the clergy renewal of vows two years ago, the preacher recalled this story and asked us to imagine something I am going to ask you to imagine also, namely, that as each man turned to leave he dropped the stone he was holding so the departure was not silent but rather punctuated by the staccato dropping of perhaps hundreds of stones on the pavement of the temple court.

It is time to stop casting stones: it is time to realize with humility that we are all sinners saved by the grace of God, that judgment is not ours to render, and that we would do well to drop the stones we now hold and instead open our hands to each other.

This will be no easy task. The hurts and wounds are very real, and healing will come only when we are willing to let go of the pain. We need to ask for forgiveness and we need to forgive as we have been forgiven by God, and move forward in grace. Patterns of behavior have been established, many unconsciously, and we need to give each other permission to stop and say, "No, that’s they way we used to treat each other. We’re not doing that anymore." We’ll need to re-evaluate every aspect of our lives and ask the question, "Is this the way that Jesus would have us behave and treat each other?" We will make mistakes, and there will be false starts. There will be more hurt, but if are willing to be vulnerable to one another and believe the best of each other, the old patterns will begin to melt away and we can move ahead with grace and charity.

Picking up Stones:

But it will not be enough simply to let go of the stones, the old patterns of behavior, and the hurts we have accumulated. We need to start gathering a different kind of stones. Stones that will enable us to rebuild what is in disrepair.

Nehemiah served in perhaps the most trusted position in the Persian Empire. He was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. It was his job, among other things, to taste the King’s food before the king ate it, so as to insure the king’s safety. Over a hundred years beforehand, the first wave of exiles had returned to Jerusalem, among them Ezra whose task was to begin the rebuilding of the temple itself. Nehemiah, having never been to Jerusalem, receives word that the city is in tatters, that the walls which protect the great city have fallen, and that people are vulnerable to outside attacks. After a long period of prayer, Nehemiah petitions the king for leave to go and rebuild the walls. Permission is grated. Nehemiah makes the journey and completes the task in record time.

I have often described the task before us as "Herculean," an adjective which evokes the Roman myth of Hercules and his twelve labors. But our task here is not Herculean, achieved by virtue of our own strength. Rather, our task is "Nehemian" – to be accomplished in faith, with prayer, and through obedience to the Lord.

The people of Nehemiah’s time gathered stones in order to build, knowing that their faithfulness would be blessed by God. These are the stone we need to gather, stones of rebuilding, stones of construction, stones that allow us to create, and in that creation to rejoice with the Creator. It is time to gather stones. It is time to rebuild. It is time for us to focus on what unites us, not what divides us. For what unites us is far deeper and more powerful than that which separates.

"What does this look like?" you may ask. I would like to suggest that there are at least three aspects to this rebuilding.
First and foremost, we acknowledge that the foundation stone on which we build is the person of Jesus Christ. We are, and continue to be, a Diocese which upholds the classic formularies of the church — the Nicene and Apostle Creeds — affirming the Deity of Christ, his sonship with the father, his redeeming work on the cross, and his offer of salvation to the world. We believe scripture to be the Word of God and that it contains all things necessary for salvation. It is from this that all else flows, it is on this foundation that we build. All of our outreach, all of our social service, all of our mission work is predicated on these facts and driven by the sure and certain knowledge that we are redeemed people who wish to make Christ’s redemption known to the world. Everything begins from here.

Second is incarnational ministry. In his book The Rise of Christianity, University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark set out to test the commonly held story that the church, during its first three hundred years, grew exponentially in the Roman Empire. He was asking the question, "Is it really possible that such a movement could grow so much so fast?" His conclusion was "yes" but the reasons were a bit surprising.

What led to the rapid growth of the early church was not a commitment to purity of doctrine. In fact, there were huge theological debates (which make much of what we struggle with today seem paltry), and the first Council of
Nicea, which began to bring some uniformity of belief, wouldn’t occur until 325. What Stark discovered was that the church grew because of what I would call "incarnational" ministry.

That is, the early Christians “became Christ” to the world.

In the mid third century the plague came to Alexandria, Egypt, and in the course of several months two-thirds of the city’s population died. Those of means abandoned the city, often leaving sick family and friends behind to die. But the Christians stayed. They stayed and ministered not only to their own but also to everyone regardless of their religion. The testimony of this incarnated love was what caused people to be attracted from paganism to a faith in Jesus Christ.

All around the empire this sort of behavior was seen. Christians visited the garbage dumps and collected the infants left to die, they took in the widowed and orphaned, they treated women better than even the official law of Rome would have them treated. They engaged the world with a self-sacrificing love which, like the plague itself, became infectious. It changed the world.
This is the way we need to be. We will build this diocese with the stones of the incarnation. We will show the world what it means to love one another and what it means to love a world which is broken and hostile. To lay down our very lives because of the life which was laid down for us and for the world. The world cannot help but be attracted to that.

Lastly, and I hesitate to use this word because it is so misused, diversity needs to be a hallmark of our common life together. But this is not easy to achieve and will not be brought to fruition simply by our trying to be more diverse.

My undergraduate degree is in stream and lake ecology. My thesis was developing a baseline study establishing the water quality of a large stream in Allegheny County. There is an inherent problem with assessing the water quality of a stream: the water is always moving. If someone is emitting an effluent at intervals, that substance may or not be present when chemical testing is done. What environmentalists have discovered is that the quality of the water can be established by assessing the diversity of the biological life forms found in it. In other words, the better the water quality, the more diverse the community. The healthier the environment, the more diverse the community is. One does not improve the quality of the water by introducing diversity; one increases the diversity of the community by
improving the quality of the environment.

I believe the same is true of every community, including the church. If we want to enjoy the diversity which has been one of the characteristics of the Episcopal Church, we must work to create an environment that fosters such a community.
This brings me back to where I started: we can only do this when we abandon the patterns of behavior to which have become accustomed. We must be in conversation, seeking to understand each other and when possible to rejoice and embrace the diversity God has blessed us with.

This is not to say that there are no boundaries and that everything is necessarily acceptable. But the church is broader than we have allowed it to be here and we need to work at creating a healthy environment that fosters appropriate diversity.
And now we come to the first test in seeing if we can lay aside the old patterns of behavior and move forward, trusting that the leadership which has been raised up is prayerfully seeking what is best for the Diocese and every member in it.

Your Standing Committee has been meeting with representatives of the Presiding Bishop’s office in order to ascertain the best way forward in establishing an Episcopal presence in the diocese at this time, that is to say the presence of a bishop.

There were two possible ways to do this. The first is termed a "Provisional Bishop". This individual would be elected by the convention and would assume full ecclesiastical authority in the diocese.

The second option is termed an "Assisting Bishop". This individual would be selected by the Standing Committee to assist the Diocese, while the Standing Committee would continue to be the ecclesiastical authority. However, certain aspects of that ecclesiastical authority would be delegated to the assisting bishop by agreement of the Standing Committee. This is the route we have chosen to take. We believe that it gives the diocese more autonomy in making decisions as we move forward in what is certainly a time of fragility. There is also the reality that the universe of candidates available to be Assisting Bishop is larger, as the role is part-time and would not be for the entire time between now and the election of a diocesan Bishop.

I am pleased to announce that, subject to a letter of agreement being signed, your Standing Committee has asked Bishop Robert H. Johnson, retired bishop of Western North Carolina, to act as Assisting Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I need to make sure that there is no confusion here. The State of North Carolina has several dioceses and at one time there were two Bishop Robert Johnsons in the state. The Standing Committee has chosen Robert H. Johnson of Western North Carolina, who currently resides in Ashville.

Bishop Johnson is a Jacksonville, Florida native and was ordained in 1963. He served parishes in Jacksonville and Atlanta before being elected Bishop in 1988. He has been active in CREDO and serves on the board of the Church Pension Fund. He has been married for 46 years and has two grown children. Bishop Johnson most recently served in a similar capacity to what we are asking in The Diocese of Southern Virginia and did a wonderful job. We are thrilled that Bishop Johnson will join us in this capacity. He will be with us approximately two weeks a month and his commitment is until the end of July 2009.

Bishop Johnson’s task will be threefold. First, he will help us to rebuild the infrastructure of the Diocese and be responsible for the day-to-day administrative tasks. Second, he will be available for parish visitations to do confirmations and other sacramental ministries. Third, and most importantly, he will be a pastor to us. Bishop Johnson will help us begin the healing we so badly need. He is, we believe, the right person at the right time.

Our old culture would now start to throw stones. It would “Google” the Bishop’s name and begin to collect writings and voting records, it would be mistrustful and suspicious. It would dwell on the deficits and not the benefits. Perhaps some from whom we are separated will do this.

We need to not do that. Rather, we need to trust that those who have been raised up to leadership have everyone’s best interest in mind and that this is not just a human answer to a situation but a godly one as well. We need to see this appointment as God’s way of moving us forward, to recognize it as another stone we gather in the rebuilding of our common life.
At the end of the book that bears his name, Joshua confronts the people of Israel and asks them to choose this day who they will serve. He is honest with them about the difficulties this choice will bring, that serving YHWH is not an easy task. It is in this context that he
utters perhaps his most well-known line,

"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

And so a similar choice lies before us today. Will we choose the old way, the way of throwing stones and serving the past, or will we choose to serve the Lord, to serve him by picking up stones to rebuild for the future? Serving the Lord by gathering the stones of creating will not be easy, but I believe that we are equal to the task. That to which God has called us He will empower us to complete.

I want to close by making a personal declaration to all you here today. It is simply this: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

25 comments:

  1. What a wonderful sermon.

    I couldn't help but notice Dr. Simons' background: "undergraduate degree is in stream and lake ecology" (and his helpful analogy about a healthy environment nurturing diversity). Which in turn, made me think of the PB, and her academic background (marine biology).

    Perhaps at this time, when so many of us are throwing too much blah-blah-blah (much like Simons' stones!) at each other, we need the down-to-earth (or sea) common sense of scientists to cut through the BS---to the actual life (zoology) of the Church?

    My 2c.

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  2. May the Lord bless them in their endeavors!

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  3. Very moving. Thank you for posting this.

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  4. Indeed, it is a fine sermon, one from which we may all learn.

    May God bless the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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  5. Bob of Fremont14/12/08 3:44 PM

    I am glad to hear that both sides will now move on without further lawsuits or recriminations.

    This is a wonderful witness and I am pleased for both sides of this.

    Leaving behind the lawsuits and recriminations is the best way for both sides to move ahead.

    Dr. Simons is right on.

    Bob of Fremont

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  6. For Jim, is it now back to throwing stones at Bishop Duncan calling him Yertle the Turtle and calling his former colleagues a bunch of lemmings?

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  7. A splendid sermon.
    I especially liked the part about incarnational witness, and the example of the early Christians in plague-ridden Alexandria. I believe that this standard -- a much harder and more demanding standard -- is the one by which we shall all be measured in the end. The test will be how much we can be Christ to each other, and especially to those outside the fellowship; not whether we can correctly answer a true-false pop quiz on points of doctrine.

    I also liked the ecology analogy.

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  8. When I came to the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1976 it was marked by the gracious and inclusive ministry of Bishop Robert Appleyard. I am heartened by Jim Simons' gracious message to the continuing Diocese of Pittsburgh. God bless them in the work ahead.

    Jim Von Dreele

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  9. I was moved, until I learned that the new Diocese of Pittsburgh plans to spend a third of next year's budget on lawsuits. So, despite whatever sentiments have been expressed here, they in fact are planning to throw lots of stones. And they really had me going for a moment. I'm sure Simons+ is sincere enough. But the new diocese has other things in mind.

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  10. That was really great! A wonderful pastoral sermon--I hope many in Pittsburgh, besides the delegates to this convention, get to read and hear it.

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  11. Amen,

    An awesome sermon.

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  12. Richard Warren14/12/08 9:02 PM

    The former Bishop of the Diocese could learn a few things from this priest who once served under him as well as the rest who followed him.

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  13. To Bob of Fremont and RB, there is a simple way to end the lawsuits: don't steal the property on your way to Argentina.

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  14. David Wilson+,

    You have to admit, Jim Simons+ Yurtle and lemmings are pretty funny. Much better than the "apostate" and "heretic" that the other side throws around here in Pittsburgh.

    I am a member of St. Paul's Episcopal in Mt. Lebanon, PA and many of our members have very recently received postcards from nearby St. David's Parish refering to Episcopalians with just those words.

    Isn't it ironic that the Priest-in-charge at St. David's is also named David Wilson+.

    That David Wilson+ was until this spring the Rector of St. Paul's, Kittanning, PA. I truly enjoyed meeting their interim Rector and lay deputies at Saturday's reorganizing convention. They have decided not to realign.

    Oh, the irony. That (the St. David's) David Wilson+ is also the President of the standing committee of the group that left for the Southern Cone. I hope he works his same magic at St. David's.

    I'm sure there are two David Wilsons+, right?

    Andy Muhl

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  15. I fear that the reasserters here have misread the good father's sermon. His encouragement to lay down the stones was specifically directed at those in attendance about throwing stones at one another. As the former bishop of this continuing diocese undoubtedly stirred many harsh feelings amongst those who now choose to remain with the Episcopal Church.

    However, I am also sure that the reorganized, but continuing Diocese of Pittsburgh has every intention of reclaiming their rightful patrimony from those who departed with buildings and funds to constitute a diocese in a new denomination.

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  16. The image that comes to my mind with the language of 'throwing stones' is that this re-forming diocese of TEC is caught between a rock and a hard place.

    I think they need to set standards and goals, but they may find themselves in need of a strong defense which may include a law suit or two.

    They don't need our judgment. They've had too many years of being told who they are, what they should believe and how they should act.

    What they need is to be lifted continually in prayer.

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  17. Well, without throwing stones, of course the first thing I did was Google Bishop Robert H. Johnson. The only thing I really found was that, of course, TEC's opponents (T19 specifically) had already done so to their satisfaction. They are, in fact, right over there to say that it is unfair to say "trust us, and don't Google our guy." I assume that lots of people, separators and remainers. have done so.

    According to commenters there, Johnson is a "flaming liberal." Imagine that. If true, I am on the same side of the issues as the (assisting) bishop of a diocese of my church, and I don't have to defend it. That's a pleasant change.

    I do hope that the remaining Diocese of Pittsburgh re-builds and goes from strength to strength. There is nothing wrong with having appointed a bishop on the TEC side of the issues which have divided us, and no reason we shouldn't know.

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  18. Viriato da Silva15/12/08 10:43 AM

    Overall, I thought this was a wonderful, powerful sermon/address. Yet toward the end I found one major stumbling block, which perhaps would be classified by Dr. Simons as "throwing a stone," yet which strikes me as absolutely warranted given the history.

    Dr. Simons admonishes his audience that: "We need to not do that. Rather, we need to trust that those who have been raised up to leadership have everyone’s best interest in mind and that this is not just a human answer to a situation but a godly one as well."

    This is a highly ironic sentiment, inasmuch as, until recently, it is the former Bishop Bob who was in a position to say such a thing, and who indeed *did* in effect say such -- and that's precisely the road that led to the schism he led.

    Christians should never be asked, in effect, to check their brains at the door -- to "just trust me, just trust your leaders," unless the "me" speaking is Jesus Christ Himself. Childlike trust in leaders has far too often, in both the religious and the political world, led to abuse and deception.

    With all due respect to Dr. Simons and to the otherwise powerful points he made, one can still require trust to be earned, and maintain one's intelligence and vigilance, while nonetheless refraining from "stone throwing."

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  19. Yertle the Turtle?

    I don't see the slightest resemblance.

    Now Woodsy the Owl, on the other hand....

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  20. Anyone who kicks at those who are forming another Province had better be able to stand solidly on their one foot left on the ground.

    The claims of moral high ground and viability are awaiting the evidence to come in from the larger TEC and the newly reconstituted Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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  21. Yertle the Turtle? Sigh, reductio ad Hitlerum.

    Surely Simons+ is admonishing both sides of the aisle to avoid casting stones.

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  22. As people have said
    a strong wonderful sermon

    Now with the announcement of a parallel province
    comes a whole (new) parallel Anglican Communion!
    See:
    http://www.liturgy.co.nz/blog/true-anglican-communion/246

    Advent blessings

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  23. JCF: That's what I have been saying for years.

    Biologists, though....as a sense of wonder at the diversity of life would appear to be required for the job.

    IT

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  24. "Our old culture would now start to throw stones. It would “Google” the Bishop’s name and begin to collect writings and voting records, it would be mistrustful and suspicious. It would dwell on the deficits and not the benefits. Perhaps some from whom we are separated will do this."

    Well, I did look at Louie Crew's site and the new bishop has a near perfect pro-homosexual voting record. The only exception was that he voted for Bp Frey's resolution in the early 90's requesting that Episcopal clergy avoid sexual relations outside of marriage. (This was amazingly defeated.)

    It is fairly clear to me that Simons+ is opposed to lawsuits which is a colossal boulder to be lobbed at the other side. I wonder if he will publicly and unequivocally repudiate them. If he truly wants to irenically "rebuild the temple" engaging in major litigation wars isn't the way to do this.
    ---
    Glory to God in the highest,
    And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.

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  25. I don't think Simons meant it this way, but this is what this message will ultimately mean for those conservatives in Pittsburgh who chose to remain in TEC:

    "Please don't throw stones at us. This distracts us from throwing much larger and nastier stones at your friends and relatives in court. By the way, we expect you to help pay for those larger, nastier stones. What do you mean, you don't like that? No stone throwing, now."

    You cannot pretend that the accusations in court are somehow different and exempt, if you expect this to stop.

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